How to Buy a Printer

Key Buying Considerations

Here we discuss the top buying criteria for the three most popular types of printers: inkjet, snapshot, and color laser printers.

Inkjet Printers

For a ranked list of all the recent inkjet printers PC World has tested and reviewed, consult PC World's Printer Info Center.

Important consideration: print quality. While price doesn't always indicate the print quality of an inkjet printer, there is some correlation. Before deciding on a specific model, check our Top 10 Inkjet Printers chart to see how recent inkjets stack up in our print-quality tests.

Important consideration: ink replacement cost. For inkjets, the cost of ink has the biggest impact on the overall cost of the printer over time. Before plunking down your cash, find out how much the replacement ink cartridges cost and how many pages each cartridge can print. Vendors generally charge $10 to $40 for a three-color cartridge and $5 to $35 for an individual color or black cartridge. Usually, the cheaper a cartridge is, the less ink it holds; yields range anywhere from 100 to 1000 pages per cartridge, though a few models now yield up to 2000 pages per cartridge. See "Refilling the Tank" in "Printer Shopping Tips" on the next page for more.

Worthy of consideration: multiple black ink cartridges. Some inkjets, notably models from HP such as the Photosmart D5460, use dual black cartridges: one for laser-quality text (often called "pigment black") and the other for printing photos on glossy paper (sometimes called "photo black" or "dye black"). Pigment black ink is optimized for printing text on plain paper. If you splurge on the printer manufacturer's recommended paper, all the better. Dye-based black ink is optimized for printing on photo paper but can also print text.

Worthy of consideration: maximum print resolution. The resolution is the number of dots per square inch that a printer can spit out onto a sheet of paper. More dots give you a finer level of detail, which is especially important with graphics but negligible with text. Inkjet printers generally have a maximum color resolution of 4800 by 1200 dots per inch (dpi). Many printers also use software to interpolate an image and to smooth out patches of color, fill in gaps, and sharpen more-detailed sections. Such enhancements can affect print quality as much as the printer's resolution. The best way to determine print quality is not to look at the resolution specs but to print out a sample and judge for yourself.

Worthy of consideration: paper tray capacity. If you print just a few pages at a time, the single input tray found on most inkjet printers won't bother you. If you print longer documents, share the printer with other users, or like to have a few different kinds of paper loaded at one time, look for a model with a second paper tray or a dedicated tray for photo media.

Worthy of consideration: color LCD. A front-panel display makes navigating menus or selecting photos from a media card easier.

Minor consideration: PictBridge. Many mainstream photo-oriented inkjets include a feature called PictBridge, which is a dedicated USB port for connecting your digital camera directly to the printer.

A few lasers, such as the HP Color LaserJet 2605dtn and Konica Minolta Magicolor 2430DL, have media slots or a PictBridge port for printing from a digital camera.

Minor consideration: media card slots. Many inkjet printers have media slots for printing from your camera's memory card or for transferring the images to your PC. Check that your digital camera's specific media type (SD Card, Memory Stick, xD-Picture Card, and so on) is supported.

Snapshot Printers

For a ranked list of all the recent snapshot printers PC World has tested and reviewed, consult PC World's Printer Info Center.

Important consideration: print quality. Though price doesn't always reflect a snapshot printer's output quality, there is some correlation. Before deciding on a model, check our Top 5 Snapshot Printers chart to see how recent snapshot units stack up in our print-quality tests.

Important consideration: ink replacement cost. As with inkjets, before you buy, be sure to check the cost of a snapshot printer's replacement cartridges and how many pages each cartridge can print. Vendors generally charge $28 to $38 or more for a three-color cartridge (at this point, snapshot printers don't use individual color or black cartridges). Yields range from about 108 to 150 pages per cartridge, or a cost per page ranging from 25 to 29 cents, which is more than twice the cost per page for inkjets. See "Refilling the Tank" in "Printer Shopping Tips" on the next page for more.

Major consideration: media card slots. Many snapshot printers have media slots for printing from your camera's memory card or transferring the images to your PC. It's also a good idea to make sure that your digital camera's removable media (SD Card, Memory Stick, xD-Picture Card, and so on) is supported.

Major consideration: color display. A good-size LCD on the printer is worth having if you intend to print directly from a memory card. It lets you view and even edit photos without having to use your PC.

Laser Printers

For a ranked list of all recent laser printers PC World has tested and reviewed, see our Printer Info Center.

Important consideration: text and graphics print speeds. This is the rate at which the printer can output full pages of text or graphics. Vendors' quoted engine speeds frequently exceed what we experience in our tests or what you'll experience in real life, sometimes by a wide margin. Take the vendor's numbers with a grain of salt.

Important consideration: print quality. Both color and monochrome lasers print text extremely well. Color lasers print color charts and other two-dimensional graphics well, but they still can't quite match inkjets in handling glossy photograph prints--yet.

Minor consideration: maximum print resolution. The resolution refers to the number of dots per square inch (dpi) that the printer can output. More dots provide a finer level of detail, which is especially important with graphics (but a negligible factor with text). Resolution mattered more when early laser printers could manage only a chunky-looking 300 dpi. Once 600 dpi and higher resolutions became available, image quality improved across the board. Many vendors enhance the true resolution to make it look even better. Color lasers usually have a maximum resolution of either 2400 by 1200 or 2400 by 600 dpi. Even those fairly modest resolutions for lasers suffice for printing sharp text and simple grayscale graphics.

Major consideration: memory. Low-end lasers in a home or small office can rely on the host PC for all or most of the needed memory, but networked printers require their own to perform efficiently. More memory lets you print more documents more quickly, or upload fonts for higher-quality text. Most high-end lasers include at least 64MB of RAM, with expansion options permitting up to a gigabyte of memory for queuing multiple print jobs at once. For a busy office, equip your laser with at least 128MB to 256MB of memory.

Major consideration: connections. A USB port is all that most home or small-office users need to connect a printer to a single PC. Business users or those with home networks will want an ethernet port or Wi-Fi capability. Some high-end business models have an infrared (IrDA) port option, which allows laptop or PDA users to print by pointing their infrared ports at the printer, or a USB port for printing from a USB-connected flash drive.

Major consideration: paper tray capacity. Make sure the printer can hold enough paper to accommodate all your users without excessive refilling. For home and small-office users, low-end lasers' 100-sheet to 150-sheet main trays are adequate. Lasers designed for a networked office usually start at 250 or 500 sheets standard, with additional paper trays for greater quantities or different sizes of media.

Subscribe to the Power Tips Newsletter

Comments